The Height of Nature

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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From my perch on a wide shelf halfway up the canyon wall, I looked back over the territory I had hiked. The day was clear and Montecito lay at the edge of the Pacific like a mirage. The Pacific itself lay in a haze. I knew somewhere out of my sight the Channel Islands waited, and beyond them was nothing but water until the cold of Antarctica. Though the sun beat down on me and I was pressing my back into the warm stone I sat against, I shivered.

Several years before, my friend Paul Willis had read a paper on my journals at an academic conference. He had confessed that coming from the West, my Northeastern orientation to nature made him feel claustrophobic. Then, agreeing with a critic who observed that Eastern nature writing is intensive and Western nature writing is extensive, he said, "You have Jack Leax contemplating his green beans, and you have Gary Snyder running the ridges like a wolf." Several pages later he concluded, "And where do I stand? I'm still out here as extensive as ever. I keep inviting Jack to join me, to climb the mountains and get their good tidings. But he won't. Like that prissy friend of his, Henry Thoreau, he's afraid of heights."

Now, Paul stood on the shelf facing me, his heels at the edge of the abyss, and he was delighted. In my own way, I was too, but I was also disoriented. I could feel the cold of Antarctica chilling my responses. That chill, of course, was part of the reason for being there. I had accepted Paul's invitation because I had a desire to have my world both ways—intensive and extensive. But desires come with a cost, and the cost I was paying was fear—fear of heights and fear of my own human smallness in the vastness of creation.

Eventually we had to abandon our outlook and descend. A short way back, we came to the only difficult spot I had faced on the hike. Where our path cut across a steep side slope that dropped off to the stream 40 or 50 feet below, a spring turned the trail to mud. Coming up, I had climbed carefully above the spring and avoided crossing it. Returning, I watched Paul dance easily over danger in three quick steps. I had spent my life in the woods. I was only fifteen years older than Paul. I was sure I could do it.

One step into my dance, I caught a glimpse of the drop to the creek. At the same moment I felt my foot slipping, and foolishly I leaned into the bank seeking the security of the earth. My feet went wild, and I went down. My face hit the mud. "I'm going to die in the cold waters of that creek," I thought. But I didn't. I flattened myself, dug my fingernails into the slope, and ground to a stop.

Paul must have heard my flop, for he turned. His face clouded then cleared as I crawled onto the dry trail and stood. Seeing I'd survived the fall and now needed to survive only his judgment, his eyes twinkled and he spoke, "Well, that's about as bad a thing as might happen there."

Wiping the mud from my face, I admired the grace of his word almost as much as the grace of his dance across the mud.